‘Ancient civilization . . . broken to pieces’
By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 22, 2008
Illegal diggers are chipping away at Iraq’s heritage at thousands of largely unguarded sites. The artifacts may never be returned.
BAGHDAD — He works as a blacksmith in one of Baghdad’s swarming Shiite slums. But at least once a month, Abu Saif tucks a pistol into his belt, hops into a minibus taxi and speeds south.
His goal: to unearth ancient treasures from thousands of archaeological sites scattered across southern Iraq.
Images of Baghdad’s ransacked National Museum, custodian of a collection dating back to the beginning of civilization, provoked an international outcry in the early days of the war in 2003.
The ancient statues, intricately carved stone panels, delicate earthenware and glittering gold are now protected by locked gates and heavily armed guards. But U.S. and Iraqi experts say a tragedy on an even greater scale continues to unfold at more than 12,000 largely unguarded sites where illegal diggers like Abu Saif are chipping away at Iraq’s heritage.
“It may well be that more stuff has come out of the sites than was ever in the Iraqi museum,” said Elizabeth Stone, an archaeology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Iraqi officials say the U.S. government has supported their efforts to retrieve looted antiquities from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Islamic and other civilizations, but they do not hide their bitterness that more was not done to secure them in the first place.
“Iraq floats over two seas; one is oil and the other is antiquities,” said Abdul Zahra Talaqani, media director for Iraq’s Ministry of State for Tourism and Archaeology. “The American forces, when they entered, they protected all the oil wells and the Ministry of Oil . . . but the American forces paid no attention to Iraq’s heritage.”
The thefts were already taking place before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, but U.S. and Iraqi experts say they surged in the ensuing chaos.
Abu Saif, a man in his mid-30s with dark eyes, calloused hands and a long, black coat, was 14 when relatives introduced him to the hunt for buried treasure. Asked why he does it, he grins.
“For the thrill of it,” he said.
In the beginning, he was a lookout for others. Now, he has his own tightknit group of four or five diggers. He collects tips from farmers about possible archaeological sites and researches them in his small collection of dogeared books before traveling inconspicuously to meet his team and excavate. They work quickly, finishing a job in two to three days.
If they are successful, which they usually are, he shares the find with his diggers and the property owner. He considers what he does a hobby and says he sells only what he needs to cover costs. But he is vague about who the buyers are.
Talaqani says criminal gangs buy artifacts from men like Abu Saif and smuggle them out of the country. U.S. officials also suspect that Sunni and Shiite paramilitary groups may be taking a cut.
Abu Saif, who asked to be identified by a traditional nickname, admits that he once paid members of a Shiite militia to protect a site where he was digging. But a few hours later, another group of gunmen turned up and demanded more money. Now, he says, he refuses to deal with the militias.
He avoids the more famous sites such as the ancient cities of Isin, Shurnpak and Umma because “there are eyes upon them.” But he says there are plenty of out-of-the-way places near Kut and Nasiriya that yield small treasures. The artifacts include coins, jewelry and fragile clay tablets etched in wedge-like cuneiform script, recording myths, decrees, business transactions and other details of Mesopotamian life.
At his two-story cinder-block home, he pulls out old jewelry boxes and rummages through spools of thread to find ancient gems of agate and carnelian. His most treasured possession is a thumb-sized cylinder with a man’s face carved into one side and a woman’s face into the other. An appraiser told him it was from Babylonian times and was worth as much as $4,000. Asked whether he planned to sell it, he looked horrified and said, “No, these are my children!”
Stone has been tracing the thefts at 2,000 sites in the south using DigitalGlobe satellite imagery. She estimates that looters have torn up about 167 million square feet.
“It’s a huge amount of area,” she said. “Archaeologists have dug just a tiny fraction of that.”
She said small-scale digging began in the 1990s, when government neglect and a United Nations embargo pushed a large number of farmers into penury in the largely Shiite south, home to many of Iraq’s richest archaeological sites. But in the weeks before the 2003 invasion, the images show holes spreading rapidly across many of the smaller and medium-sized sites.
Most of these places weren’t touched again until the last months of 2003. But at the sites of some of the more important cities, there was a huge push that summer, which Stone said appeared far more systematic and organized than previous digging. Umma, a major Sumerian city that was partially excavated before the war, was turned into a moonscape. Afterward, the pace slowed considerably, though she has seen little imagery from 2007.
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